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Get Alaska statewide news from the stations of the Alaska Public Radio Network (APRN). With a central news room in Anchorage and contributing reporters spread across the state, we capture news in the Voices of Alaska and share it with the world. Tune in to your local APRN station in Alaska, visit us online at APRN.ORG or subscribe to the Alaska News podcast right here. These are individual news stories, most of which appear in Alaska News Nightly (available as a separate podcast).
Updated: 31 min 28 sec ago

Mixed Feelings On A New Company That’ll Begin Drilling in Cook Inlet

Fri, 2015-06-12 16:07

A Texas-based company will begin drilling for oil in Cook Inlet next year using extended-reach oil wells.

BlueCrest Energy plans to drill from shore about six miles north of Anchor Point. Informational meetings were held in Homer and Anchor Point this week. The participants seemed split between hope for an economic jump start and worry for the project’s safety.

BlueCrest held three meetings in the three communities closest to the proposed site, Ninilchik, Anchor Point and Homer. BlueCrest inherited the Cosmopolitan Project from a long line of predecessors. Pennzoil, Arco, Conoco Phillips, Pioneer and Buccaneer all tried to reach the reserves in question. They all failed. When Buccaneer took its shot, BlueCrest already owned a 75 percent interest in the project and they decided to buy the other 25 percent after Buccaneer fell into huge amounts of debt.

As full owner, BlueCrest plans to drill onshore wells, some as deep as 25,000 feet, straight down and two and a half miles out beneath the ocean floor to tap reserves in the cosmopolitan fields. Extended Reach Drilling (ERD) is directional drilling of very long, horizontal wells.

“We are not drilling offshore for oil. All of the oil development is from an onshore land rig.”

Larry Burgess, the Health, Safety and Environmental Manager for BlueCrest, says drilling from shore will leave very little risk of spills in the inlet.

Although onshore drilling was far more welcome than the prospect of offshore wells, Anchor Point and Homer residents still had concerns.

“[I am] Ken Lewandowski, I live in Cottonwood Subdivision which is in the backyard, the side yard of the Stariski plant that they plan on building.”

Lewandowski says there’s only one road in and out of his subdivision, where BlueCrest plans to drill.

“They literally tore up an ambulance coming down the hill in the winter time. Without having any access whatsoever to get out of our subdivision safely all year round and not having any kind of access to the facility leaves me to believe there’s a problem that’s going to happen in the future for sure.”

Lewandowski says living in that home was originally part of his retirement plan, but after learning about the Cosmopolitan Project, he’s looking for an exit strategy. He wants BlueCrest to compensate all four homeowners in the subdivision for the inconvenience.

“I spoke with this gentleman, Larry, a couple of minutes ago and he assured me that we’re going to sit down again and I’m looking forward to our next meeting.”

Other big concerns during the meeting included fire danger, spill prevention, noise, water use, and mode of transportation. Burgess was prepared with an answer for nearly every issue. But, no answer could stem worry over the risk of trucking oil. Burgess says there are only three real options to get the oil from the plant up to the Tesoro refinery in Nikiski. By truck, by ship, and by pipeline.

“If we have one barge running up and down Cook Inlet once or twice a week, that’s much less traffic with oil moving than if we’re running four or five trucks a day. On the other hand we’re looking at 400 barrels per truck as opposed to 50,000 barrels in a barge.”

BlueCrest would rather risk the 400 barrels on the road. A pipeline was the most popular option at both meetings. It’s the safest and most efficient mode of transport but it’s also expensive.

“More vehicles on the road, just by sheer probability is less safe than barging or a pipeline. That doesn’t mean it’s unsafe. It just means it’s less safe than the other options.”

BlueCrest plans to eventually produce about 17,000 barrels per day and Burgess says that’s nowhere near enough to justify a pipeline to Nikiski. Initially BlueCrest expects to have one or two trucks on the road each day. As production climbs the company plans to look at transportation alternatives.

Outside of safety concerns, the other big question on people’s minds was what benefits BlueCrest would bring to the Southern Peninsula.

Long-term Anchor Point residents Emmitt Trimble and Buzz Kyllonen were around to see the long procession of companies attempt the cosmopolitan project. Trimble says BlueCrest might be the people to get the job done.

“It’s going to be nice to see that income generated in this community when we don’t have a lot of economic growth or development here. It’s going to be nice to have somebody join the rest of us tax payers in paying those property tax bills.”

Kyllonen agrees with Trimble. But, he says they’ll keep an eye on BlueCrest.

“I think they’re on the right track and we’ll have to wait and see. But, I think they’ve done their homework and I’m optimistic.”

Burgess says BlueCrest needs feedback and he urges peninsula residents to share any comments and concerns they might have regarding this project. The company plans to start full scale construction in August.

Categories: Alaska News

Cameras to remedy observer problems in Alaska?

Fri, 2015-06-12 12:11

Smaller boats in Alaska’s offshore fisheries may no longer have to carry human observers in the future, if a plan to deploy cameras proves feasible.

At its Sitka meeting this month, the North Pacific Fishery Management Council gave the green light to an inter-agency effort to develop Electronic Monitoring. The council would like to see cameras in action within three years.

Although the headline news out of the council’s contentious June meeting focused on bycatch, there wouldn’t even be a bycatch debate without human observers.

Bycatch is what you get when you’re trying to catch something else. Halibut or chinook when you’re trawling for pollock; rockfish when you’re longlining for halibut.

Year-round, observers fly to Alaska’s remote ports, board fishing boats, and go out on trips. They monitor the bycatch, sample the harvest, and collect the reams of data needed by organizations like theNorth Pacific Fishery Management Councilto sustainably operate commercial fishing in the Bering Sea and Gulf of Alaska.

The EM cameras on the Magia, Steven Rhoads’ 55-foot longliner, are mounted on an outrigger boom. “I would pay to have electronic monitoring every day, rather than be selected to carry a human observer,” Rhoads told the council. (KCAW photo/Robert Woolsey)

Expenses for the program top $4-million a year, with about one-quarter of that funding coming from the federal government, and the other three-quarters from fees collected from the fishermen, who also have to feed and house the observers while they’re on board.

On a big boat with a large crew, like a factory trawler, an extra person isn’t necessarily a big deal. These ships may carry an observer every single voyage. On small boats, that extra person can be a bit of a wild card.

“Our observer was on board. And our observer was seasick for about half the days. Conditions were cramped, and I got to sleep on the galley table,” said Steven Rhoads, who owns a 55-foot longliner based in Sitka. Rhoads explained to the council why he’s one of over a hundred boat-owners in this size range who ask for exemptions when they’re randomly selected to carry an observer.

“The observing was not approaching anything I would call complete. It greatly disrupted our regular fishing functions.”

This so-called “observer effect” is a concern. If fishing trips are miserable with an extra person on board, or if boats manipulate their normal fishing patterns in order to return to port sooner and shed their observers — how does it affect the quality of the data?

Recently the council authorized a research program to test electronic monitoring, and Rhoads was one of eleven boat owners to volunteer to have cameras installed on his deck.

“This year every trip, every set, every haul, every hook was observed. It is a wonderful alternative.”

Aboard the TammyLin in Sitka’s Crescent Harbor…

Hi, George? Robert.

Another one of those volunteers was George Eliason. I visited him aboard his 50-foot longliner in Sitka’s Crescent Harbor. The TammyLin has six bunks.

“My boat’s big enough that there’d be plenty of room for an observer. I don’t think we’d do anything differently than we do now. I don’t think I would have a problem with that person, unless we have a conflict in personalities. That always happens.”

But Eliason has not had to test his patience with a human observer. Because he’s got room for only four people in his life raft, he’s successfully applied for an observer exemption. Instead, he’s had cameras on the Tammylin for two years running.

“This wire here goes over to the hauler. Soon as the hauler turns on, it starts the cameras up. Two (seconds) after the hauler goes off, the cameras go off.”

Eliason says he was worried at first that the cameras might catch him in a mistake, throwing fish overboard that he ought to have kept. Unlike gulf trawlers, who are prohibited from keeping some species aboard, longliners like Eliason bring their bycatch back to port and sell it. It’s species like yelloweye and demersal shelf rockfish — but if they catch too much it can restrict their ability to target halibut in some areas.

Eliason’s fears did not come to pass.

“After the person looked at the videos, they said that they could tell what each species was, because what they saw is what they’re going to get.”

Unlike salmon, bottom fish species are managed in weight, and not quantity. Accurately converting the video image of fish into weight remains one of the biggest challenges to be solved by electronic monitoring. But the upside is so compelling: Removing human observers from boats — of all sizes — reduces an element of risk, both for the crew and for the observer. Those “personality conflicts” Eliason mentioned can escalate to abuse — even assault — in the high stakes world of commercial fishing.

Why not just work out the bugs in electronic monitoring, and go for it?

“It’s a challenge. Because federal funds are tight.”

Chris Rilling manages the North Pacific Groundfish and Halibut Observer Program. Because of problems with federal funding, he’s scraping bottom just to pay for the human observer program.

So, organizations like the Alaska Longline Fishermen’s Association in Sitka are finding money on their own. Just this month they received nearly $500,000 out of a total of $3-million awarded by the National Fish & Wildlife Foundation to develop electronic monitoring. The funding will put cameras on 120 boats in Sitka, Homer, Seward and other ports.

All the boats receiving the equipment will be in the 40- to 57-and-a-half foot range, the so-called small boat fleet. But Rilling doesn’t rule out the possibility that electronic monitoring will have applications in bigger classes.

“There are a lot of promising applications for EM technology, whether it be accounting for halibut discard on some of the larger vessels, compliance monitoring for retention of species in some of the trawl fisheries, and for catch accounting on some of the smaller boats. There are a variety of ways we could use the technology and we’re exploring all of those.”

The council voted unanimously in Sitka to move forward with a pre-implementation design this year, with the hope that electronic monitoring could be integrated into the management of the small-boat fleet by 2018 — when it then could be subsidized by observer fees.

At Crescent Harbor…

Back on the TammyLin, George Eliason has mixed feelings. He believes electronic monitoring is an important goal, but that doesn’t mean he’s fine with it.

“It’s not fine to any one of us. It’s a direct intrusion on our liberties. Nobody likes it, but nobody sees a way out of it.”

Relatively speaking, Eliason and skippers like him are a small part of the bycatch problem in the Gulf. But if electronic monitoring becomes viable, they’re hoping to play a big part in the solution.

Categories: Alaska News

Wildfire season in Alaska

Fri, 2015-06-12 12:00

Funny River fire rages in the Kenai Keys area of the Kenai Peninsula May 25, 2014

It’s wildfire season in Alaska and this year more than 50,000 acres have already burned. Is this the new normal? It’s been a hot and dry spring and climate conditions are changing. Even the tundra is burning. How will these changes impact wildfires and how we fight them?

HOST: Anne Hillman

GUESTS:

  • Tom Kurth, state fire program manager, Alaska Division of Forestry
  • Rick Thoman, climate scientist, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
  • Callers statewide

PARTICIPATE:

  • Post your comment before, during or after the live broadcast (comments may be read on air).
  • Send e-mail to talk [at] alaskapublic [dot] org (comments may be read on air)
  • Call 550-8422 in Anchorage or 1-800-478-8255 if you’re outside Anchorage during the live broadcast

LIVE Broadcast: Tuesday, June 16, 2015 at 10:00 a.m. on APRN stations statewide.

SUBSCRIBE: Get Talk of Alaska updates automatically by e-mailRSS or podcast.

TALK OF ALASKA ARCHIVE

Categories: Alaska News

AK: Ice Dance

Fri, 2015-06-12 11:53

New York Dancer and Choreographer Jody Sperling had a rare opportunity last year. She was “artist in residence” aboard the Coast Guard Cutter Healy while it was on a research mission in the Arctic. Alone on vast ice floes, she danced while no one watched. APRN’s Liz Ruskin reports on her experience, and what it’s become.

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Before she left New York, Sperling was worried about traction.

“And I had in my head that it would be like an ice skating rink, like slick,” she said. “So I got boots that had a real tread on them but they weren’t very high. But what I discovered the first time I went out is that the snow is kind of deep. The snow went right over, into my feet!”

Sperling made do. Twelve times during the six-week mission, she descended the Healy’s gangplank, and joined the teams of scientists on the ice.

“And while they were doing their research in a particular area,” she said. “I would have an area that was dedicated for dance, and I could do my research.”

She usually wore little more than a body suit and those low-top boots. Sometimes she wore a costume made of yards and yards of white silk, printed with a design suggesting ice floes. In videos she shot of herself during the voyage, you can see Sperling twirling and fluttering on the biggest, barest stage she’ll ever find. Last month, though, she was at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History on a more traditional stage.

With five dancers on deck at the Baird Auditorium, she worked on the lighting the afternoon before a performance. It was part of an Arctic festival the museum hosted.

“It can go from this more icy look to a more watery look …. And it can also start to be a little more intense.”

(Photo courtesy Jody Sperling)

Some of the dancers wore extra long silk robes, using sticks to control the distant reaches, like an extension of their wing span. Sperling says it’s the silk that’s her medium. She projects light and video on it. This isn’t her first dance project about natural phenomena. A scientist at MIT was drawn to a piece she did about turbulence. He later introduced her to another scientist who was selecting people for the Healy voyage to the Arctic. The main mission was to follow up on the discovery of a massive plankton bloom. They also wanted artists for public outreach about climate science. Sperling says she was already interested in the Arctic and climate change, but the offer caught her off-guard.

“When he first invited me – it was 43-day mission in the Arctic, and at that time my daughter was two and half,” Sperling said. “And I literally turned white, as white as snow, when he told me because I had these two conflicting urges: I have to go, I want to go, I want to go. And the other one was I can’t, I can’t be away for that long.

She declined at first – then reconsidered. So in May of last year, she flew to Dutch Harbor, caught the Healy and sailed to the Chukchi Sea, off Alaska’s northwest coast.

“Sometimes we had to break ice and it would be the most amazing sound when you’d be in the ship and you’d be going through the ice and you’d hear grhrhrhrhrh, you know, cracking through the ice. I love that,” she said.

After her Arctic experience, Sperling knew she wanted the sounds of sea ice for the performance. That led her to Matthew Burtner, a musician who considers snow and ice his instrument. Sperling quickly figured out she didn’t just want to buy a few of his recordings. She was hesitant to ask him, but Burtner says when you play a rare instrument, gigs don’t come along often.

“So if you make music out of ice and snow and someone call you up and says ‘I want to do a piece about ice and snow, would you be interested in collaborating?’” Burtner said. “Well yeah, of course! This is the best!”

Burtner spent part of his childhood in Nuiqsut, where his parents were teachers. He lives in Virginia now, and returns to Alaska annually to collect ice audio.

For Sperling’s project, Burtner says his composition uses data tracking the change in the Arctic ice extent over 16 years. He plays that as a 16-beat sequence, over real-time ice sounds. Burtner says listeners don’t necessarily know what they’re hearing.

“The idea is it should work as music but it has this other kind of secret game hidden inside it,” he said. “And if you discover it, than it works on another level, as well.”

Sperling also compresses time in her dance, showing what’s normally too slow to see. She says the warming climate is in effect doing the same thing, because as ice thins it becomes more dynamic, speeding up change across the Arctic. Burtner says that change defines our era, and his art.

“Like I think our lifetime is the time of ice melting. That we are in the time of ice melting,” he said. “Maybe when I was born there was lots of ice, and maybe when I die there won’t be any ice. That somehow, it’s like a life work.”

The Smithsonian show was a bit of a preview. Their work, called “Bringing the Arctic Home” premieres in New York this month.

Categories: Alaska News

NOAA investigating Steller sea lion deaths near Cordova

Fri, 2015-06-12 11:28

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is investigating the deaths of several Steller sea lions southwest of Cordova.

(L-R) Kate Savage (NOAA), Noah Meisenheimer (NOAA), Lt. Matthew Keiper (US Coast Guard), and Sadie Wright (NOAA) collect samples from a dead Steller sea lion near Cordova, Alaska. Credit: NOAA

Julie Speegle, spokesperson for NOAA Fisheries, Alaska region, says 15 dead sea lions were discovered in the area on June 1.

“Three to five of them had wounds that our biologists could definitely say were human-caused wounds,” Speegle said. “So that indicates that these Steller sea lions had been deliberately killed.”

Killing sea lions violates the Marine Mammal Protection Act, which only allows limited exceptions for subsistence hunting by Alaska Natives

These particular animals were from the western stock of Steller sea lions, which are also listed under the Endangered Species Act.

NOAA law enforcement is looking for information from anyone with details about the event…and are offering an award up to $2,500 dollars for information leading to a conviction.

Categories: Alaska News

Pollock B season opens in Aleutians, Eastern Bering Sea region

Fri, 2015-06-12 10:14

Pollock ‘B’ Season opened today in the Aleutian Islands and Eastern Bering Seas Region.

Mary Furness is a Fisheries Resource Specialist with the National Marine Fisheries Service in Juneau.

“The total allowable catch is up for the Bering Sea Pollock fishery this year, about 43,000 metric tons and the allocation is divided by the A season which gets 40% and the B season gets 60%,” she said.

According to Furness, there are about 19,000 more metric tons of Pollock available for harvest in this year’s B season.

Pollock numbers have been up in recent years.  Last year’s was the second largest biomass estimate on record since scientists started surveying the fish in 1982. But harvest levels for groundfish are not allowed to surpass 2 million metric tons, regardless of increased assessments.

Furness said federal managers expect the Pollock B Season to wrap up by early to mid-October.

Categories: Alaska News

9th Circuit Court rules in favor of Shell’s spill response plans

Fri, 2015-06-12 09:25

The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled on Thursday in favor of the Department of Interior’s approval of two oil spill response plans for Arctic drilling put forward by Royal Dutch Shell.  The company plans to explore for oil in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas this summer.

A handful of environmental groups brought the suit.  They claim the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement didn’t do enough to review Shell’s plans.

In an email, shell Spokeswoman Megan Baldino said the 9th Circuit Court decision was “welcome news and validates that the Department of Interior complied with applicable laws and regulations in approving [Shell’s] plan for work offshore Alaska.”

Baldino wrote that the company remains “confident that the [Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement’s] approval of [Shell’s] plans meets all legal and regulatory requirements.”

But environmental groups are troubled by the decision.  Holly Harris is a Staff Attorney with the group EarthJustice, which was involved in the suit. She also declined to be recorded, but in an email she said the decision was “a troubling outcome for the Arctic Ocean.” She added that “despite [Thursday’s] decision, the administration has not yet given final approval to Shell’s dangerous and dirty drilling in the Arctic Ocean.”  Harris writes that EarthJustice “urges President Obama and his administration to protect the Arctic Ocean and act to prevent climate change by saying no to drilling.”

Meanwhile, Shell continues to move forward on its plans for this summer.  According to Megan Baldino, the first of a number of vessels that will be part of the exploratory drilling effort is heading north to Dutch Harbor.

The oil giant’s contracted oil spill containment vessel, the Arctic Challenger, has left Seattle. It’s not yet clear when the ship will arrive.

Baldino says a team will be in Dutch Harbor next Monday to brief city leadership on their plans for the summer.

Categories: Alaska News

Troopers cite man for running down, killing bald eagles

Fri, 2015-06-12 09:21

A 28-year-old Oregon man has been accused of running over several bald eagles feeding on a roadway in Dutch Harbor, killing two and injuring two others.

The Alaska Dispatch News reports that Alaska State Troopers cited the man after a witness reported the act to Unalaska police. The troopers took control of the case.

Witnesses say a Ford truck hit the eagles near the city’s landfill Sunday.

Troopers cited the man for using a motorized vehicle to harass or molest game and accused him of accelerating his truck through several bald eagles.

The man is scheduled to be arraigned in Unalaska District Court June 30.

Categories: Alaska News

Death of sea lions found to be caused by humans

Fri, 2015-06-12 09:20

Federal officials are saying several of the 15 Stellar sea lions found dead last week near Cordova had wounds indicating they had been “deliberately killed.”

The Alaska Dispatch News reports National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration spokesman Julie Speegle said Thursday that some of the deaths appeared to be caused by humans.

The agency received a report of the dead sea lions on June 1.

Biologist and enforcement agents visited the remote Alaska beach and found 15 of the endangered animals. The sea lions had been discovered in various stages of decomposition.

Speegle says samples from the animals have been taken and necropsies have been performed on some.

The sea lions were among the western stock of the population. The killing of sea lions in that population is illegal.

Categories: Alaska News

Youth decision making and healthy choices

Fri, 2015-06-12 08:00

Think back to being a high school student and navigating the social world. What made you happy or lonely? How did you decide if you wanted to play sports or study hard or drink alcohol? Nowadays fewer kids are drinking and making risky decisions than many people think. And we have data showing why. This week’s Alaska Edition focuses on youth decision making and how the community is supporting healthy choices.

HOST: Anne Hillman

GUESTS:

  • Deborah Williams, executive director, Anchorage Youth Development Coalition
  • Gabriel Garcia, associate professor of Public Health, University of Alaska Anchorage

KSKA (FM 91.1) BROADCAST: Friday, June 12 at 2:00 p.m. and Saturday, June 13 at 6:00 p.m.

Alaska Public Television BROADCAST: Friday, June 12 at 7:30 p.m. and Saturday, June 13 at 4:30 p.m.

Categories: Alaska News

Legislature Gavels Out

Thu, 2015-06-11 17:45

Legislators in the House listen to final thoughts on this session’s contentious budget. (Photo: Zachariah Hughes, KSKA)

Nearly two months after its regular deadline, the Alaska Legislature finally gavels out. Both chambers have approved a $5 billion operating budget and agreed on a way to pay for the deficit.

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There will be no government shutdown, or an eleventh-hour deal to avert one. If you’re a glass-half-full type, you could say the Legislature even brokered a compromise with a couple weeks to spare.

The big sticking point was the cost-of-living increases that public employees had negotiated in their contracts. During the House floor session, Finance co-chair Mark Neuman explained that the Legislature would pay for the raises this year, but there were conditions.

“Number one, that these are one-time increments. Two, that there be no cost-of-living pay raises beginning with collective bargaining agreements negotiated in 2015.”

The Legislature was also directing Gov. Bill Walker to make $30 million in agency cuts to offset the raises.

Neuman, a Big Lake Republican, also explained that the final version of the operating budget also restored some money for education, the ferry system, senior benefits, and public broadcasting.

While there was a deal, there was also grumbling from both sides. Mat-Su Republican Mike Dunleavy defended some the more contentious reductions that had been made by the Senate, noting that cuts will need to be even deeper next year.

“We’re looking at a $4 billion deficit. And if people thought it was difficult this year, it’s not going to be any easier next year. And some sacred cows that escaped a haircut this year — some of those sacred cows might actually be butchered coming into the next year.”

Meanwhile, Democrats expressed disappointment that the Legislature did not consider scaling back oil tax credit payments or accept federal money for Medicaid expansion. In both chambers, the minority was split on the budget for these reasons.

But they all voted to tap the state’s rainy day account. Senate Minority Leader Berta Gardner said the multi-billion-dollar draw was necessary to cover the state’s budget deficit, and prevent the government from grinding to a halt.

“My objections to the underlying budget are not strong enough to take us back to the brinksmanship. They’re not strong enough to endanger the Permanent Fund dividend, which is a proposal that’s been floated to this special session, and we remain committed to trying to protect the fund for future generations. Lastly, I don’t want to add even another single day to this special session.”

There was one area where there was unanimous agreement.

According to the Legislature’s accounting staff, the cost of the extended and special sessions exceeds half a million dollars [$668,000].

Categories: Alaska News

‘Erin’s Law’ Passes Unanimously In the Senate

Thu, 2015-06-11 17:44

As one of its final acts, the Legislature is advancing the Alaska Safe Children’s Act. After passing in the House during the regular session, the bill passed unanimously in the Senate today.

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The bill requires schools to provide age-appropriate education meant to prevent harm to children. The section known nationally as “Erin’s Law” teaches students about sexual abuse and lets them know there are resources if someone is hurting them. The second major component focuses on dating violence, and is being called “Bree’s Law.” It is named after Breanna Moore, who was killed last year. Her boyfriend is scheduled to be tried for the murder later this summer.

Over the course of its review, the bill was changed substantially from the original, and became a controversial vehicle for unrelated bills having to do with standardized testing and school contracts with Planned Parenthood. Those riders were ultimately removed, and the bill sponsors believe that the final version matches their original intent.

The governor is expected to sign the bill, and the program will be implemented beginning in 2017.

Categories: Alaska News

Murkowski Votes ‘Nay’ on Icebreaker Provision in Defense Bill

Thu, 2015-06-11 17:43

Drift ice camp in the middle of the Arctic Ocean as seen from the deck of icebreaker XueLong, July 2010. Photo: Timo Palo via Wikimedia Commons.

In Congress Thursday morning, a U.S. senator proposed adding nearly a billion dollars to a Defense spending bill to acquire an icebreaker – and that senator was not from Alaska. Sen. Lisa Murkowski is normally an ardent advocate for more icebreaking capacity, but she felt compelled to vote against the icebreaker amendment.

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In the Senate Appropriations Committee, it was Sen. Dick Durbin, an Illinois Democrat, who talked up the need for an icebreaker.

“The amendment includes $940 million to accelerate a Coast Guard icebreaker. We all know the reality of climate change is having an impact on national security. And the Arctic is a contested region, with China and Russia asserting their interest there. The U.S. is falling behind in its Arctic capabilities.”

Durbin’s amendment also would have funded other high-priority ships and aircraft, by shifting money from a war fund to the regular budget of the Defense Department. Murkowski’s on a mission to convince the Senate — and all Americans — that Arctic infrastructure is a national imperative, and icebreakers are at the top of her list. She acknowledged feeling torn.

“I am in a very difficult spot. I will be voting against your amendment.”

In fact, all Republicans on the appropriations committee voted against Durbin’s amendment, and not necessarily because they oppose the priorities. The problem, Murkowski says, is the spending caps known as sequestration.

“What in effect Sen. Durbin’s amendment does is bust the caps.”

This is part of a larger fight in Congress over how to fund government for the next fiscal year. Republican leaders are trying to pass bills that stay under the sequestration caps. But a majority of the appropriations committee – including Murkowski – voted for a non-binding amendment calling the across-the-board cuts unreasonable.

Categories: Alaska News

Rep. Young Lobbies To Offer Land Allotments For Alaska Native ‘Nam Vets

Thu, 2015-06-11 17:42

Congressman Don Young’s subcommittee on Native affairs took testimony today on a bill to re-open land allotment selections for Alaska Natives who served in the military during the Vietnam War. The right of Alaska Natives to acquire allotments of up to 160 acres comes from a 1906 law. The Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act ended that opportunity for most in 1971. But Native leaders have said for years that many Vietnam-era vets missed out because they were serving elsewhere when the application period closed.

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Young’s been making that argument in Congress for years, too.

“I mean how many time have I introduced this bill? I think five times. Passed it twice, or some crazy thing.”

In 1998 Congress passed a bill to re-open the selection period, giving certain Vietnam vets 18 months to apply. Young says, in hindsight, that bill was too restrictive; It only covered those serving for three years of the war.

Nelson Angapak, an Army vet and long-time Native leader, testified Thursday in favor of another open period for vets, this time with more land to choose from.

“Our research indicated that 49 of our veterans living in Southeast Alaska applied for our Native allotments and every one of those applications were denied, primarily because of the existence of the Tongass National Forest.”

Ditto, Angapak says, for applicants in the Cook Inlet, Chugach and Arctic Slope regions.

Young’s bill is sure to be controversial because it would allow selections within the state’s two national forests and in wildlife refuges.

Categories: Alaska News

Alaska News Nightly: Thursday, June 11, 2015

Thu, 2015-06-11 17:38

Stories are posted on the APRN news page. You can subscribe to APRN’s newsfeeds via emailpodcast and RSS. Follow us on Facebook at alaskapublic.org and on Twitter @aprn.

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Legislature Verges on Gaveling Out

Alexandra Gutierrez, APRN – Juneau

Nearly two months after its regular deadline, the Alaska Legislature is poised to gavel out. Both chambers have approved a $5 billion dollar operating budget and agreed on a way to pay for the deficit.

‘Erin’s Law’ Unanimously Passes In the Senate

Alexandra Gutierrez, APRN – Juneau

As one of its final acts, the Legislature passed the Alaska Safe Children’s Act. After passing in the House during the regular session, the bill passed unanimously in the Senate today.

Murkowski Votes ‘Nay’ on Icebreaker Provision in Defense Bill

Liz Ruskin, APRN – Washington, D.C.

In Congress this morning, a U.S. senator proposed adding nearly a billion dollars to a Defense spending bill to acquire an icebreaker – and that senator was not from Alaska. Sen. Lisa Murkowski is normally an ardent advocate for more icebreaking capacity, but she felt compelled to vote against the icebreaker amendment.

Rep. Young Lobbies To Offer Land Allotments For Alaska Native Vietnam Vets

Liz Ruskin, APRN – Washington, D.C.

Congressman Don Young’s subcommittee on Native affairs took testimony today on a bill to re-open land allotment selections for Alaska Natives who served in the military during the Vietnam War.

ACA Subsidies For Alaskans May Be In Jeopardy

Annie Feidt, APRN – Anchorage

The Supreme Court is expected to decide by the end of this month whether subsidies are legal in Alaska and 33 other states that use the federal health insurance exchange.

Orthodox Cathedral Desecrated During Vandalism Spree in Kodiak

Jay Barrett, KMXT – Kodiak

A 21-year-old man is under arrest for allegedly vandalizing one of Kodiak’s most historic buildings, the Holy Resurrection Russian Orthodox Cathedral, and many of its contents.

Low Oil Prices Haven’t Reached Dillingham

Matt Martin, KDLG – Dillingham

The drop in oil prices has been bad news for Alaska’s state budget, but good news for some Alaskans at the pump. But the gas price has been slow to drop in some Bristol Bay communities, especially Dillingham.

Flight Service from Alaska to Russia’s Far East To Resume

Zachariah Hughes, KSKA – Anchorage

If you’ve run out of isolated wilderness to explore in Alaska, there’s good news: flights from Anchorage to the remote interior regions of Russia are about to resume.

Feds to Investigate Groundwater Contamination in North Pole

Dan Bross, KUAC – Fairbanks

State Study Shows 60% Wolf Decline on POW

Leila Kheiry, KRBD – Ketchikan

The number of wolves on Prince of Wales Island and nearby islands has dropped dramatically, according to a draft report from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

Race To Alaska Competitors Close In On Ketchikan

Ruth Eddy, KRBD – Ketchikan

Race To Alaska organizer Jake Beattie is in Ketchikan preparing the finish line for the inaugural 750-mile engineless boat race through the Inside Passage.

Categories: Alaska News

Low Oil Prices Haven’t Reached Dillingham

Thu, 2015-06-11 17:38

The drop in oil prices has been bad news for Alaska’s state budget, but good news for some Alaskans at the pump. But the gas price has been slow to drop in some Bristol Bay communities, especially Dillingham. KDLG has been hearing from a lot of people unhappy about the gas prices.

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Photo of a pump in Dillingham from March 2015 when gas was 6.39 per gallon.
Credit Matt Martin/KDLG

“Here we are June, the first week, and we’re still paying top dollar. Hope we don’t get the screws put to us all summer here with the high gas price. Ok, that’s all I got,” says one caller to the station.

The current price of fuel in Dillingham is $6.15 down from about $6.33 a few weeks ago. Facility Manager of Delta Western in Dillingham Ken Reiswig says prices haven’t gone down yet because there is still a lot of left over fuel from the winter.

“Because there was no snow and warm winter we didn’t sell as much fuel as we had planned for, so we have fuel left over,” said Reiswig.

And until that fuel is used up, Reiswig says prices will probably hold steady were they’re at for now. But the cheaper fuel coming in may eventually lower prices.

“Whatever price fuel comes in we adjust our prices based on what’s in the tank,” added Reiswig.

Lawrence Sifsof spoke to KDLG at a pump in Dillingham Wednesday morning. He isn’t holding out much hope that prices will drop anytime soon.

“Because why would they go down now when they are keeping them this high this far,” questioned Sifsof.

Fuel prices in Ekwok are close to Dillingham’s at about 6.25. Koliganek and Togiak are a little cheaper at 5.75 and 5.33 respectively.

One person at the pumps in Dillingham told KDLG that there are some mysteries in life he chooses not to explore, he says the price of fuel in rural Alaska is one of them.

Categories: Alaska News

Feds to Investigate Groundwater Contamination in North Pole

Thu, 2015-06-11 17:37

A federal agency will conduct a study to determine the danger of drinking groundwater contaminated by the industrial solvent sulfolane in the North Pole area. The research was sought by the state of Alaska as it tries to set a clean up level for wells tainted by sufolane from spills at a local oil refinery. The new study will delay a determination on what constitutes safe water.

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There’s a lot riding on the clean up standard, which determines what’s entailed in addressing sulfolane groundwater contamination stemming from historic spills at the North pole refinery most recently operated by Flint Hills Resources.  Little is known about health impacts of consuming sulfolane tainted water, and Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation Spill Prevention and Response Director Kristin Ryan says a federal agency has agreed to undertake a 2 year study.

Last year Flint Hills challenged a very conservative 14 parts per billion preliminary clean up level.  The state promised a response by the end of 2014, and Flint Hill spokesman Jeff Cook says the company is disappointed with DEC’s decision to delay. He cites findings of a group of toxicologists the DEC assembled last year.

There’s been no laboratory research on long term health impacts of drinking sulfolane tainted water. The DEC’s Ryan says the two-year federal study will employ animal testing.

About 1,500 people living on North Pole area properties where wells have tested positive for sulfolane contamination have been provided alternative water sources by Flint Hills.  The company stopped operating the refinery last year citing costs related to the sulfolane issue as one of the reasons. Flint Hills, former refinery owner Williams and the state are embroiled in legal wrangling over responsibility for the contamination.

Categories: Alaska News

‘Race To Alaska’ Competitors Close In On Ketchikan

Thu, 2015-06-11 17:35

Race To Alaska organizer Jake Beattie is in Ketchikan preparing the finish line for the inaugural 750-mile engineless boat race through the Inside Passage. And he better be quick about it.

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“The first-place team is going so fast, that they might beat the banner that we mailed here. So the first -place team might be faster than UPS.”

The finish line, with or without a banner, will be at the entrance to Thomas Basin. The leading team, Elsie Piddock, which is 100 miles ahead of the second-place boat, is expected to arrive in Ketchikan as early as midnight Thursday.

Beattie says that the 25-foot trimaran has a three-man crew of experienced sailors who say that during this race, they have faced the worst seas they have ever been in.

“Forty knots of wind on the nose, 5 knots of currents behind them, so the seas were confused and steep and torturous.”

Broken masts, leaking hulls and other calamities have caused many boats to drop out. As of deadline 21 boats remain of the 29 that finished the qualifying leg from Port Townsend, Washington to Victoria, British Columbia.  All the boats are tracked virtually with a live satellite tracker.

The Fish House in Thomas Basin will serve as the gathering place for teams, race coordinators and supporters as teams finish sporadically through July 4th. Beattie says he’s looking forward to reconnecting with participants as they arrive in Ketchikan.

“Real people. That have, I already kind of liked, and now they’ve had this incredible experience, some of them good, some of them bad, usually a mix of    the two. Reconnecting with that hearing how it was. It’s the experience of a lifetime.”

There is a celebration scheduled for the winners on Monday at the Fish House, although it looks as though the first-place team will arrive well before that. To see exactly when teams are arriving, you can follow the live tracker, which is posted along with this report on our website.

Categories: Alaska News

ACA Subsidies For Alaskans May Be In Jeopardy

Thu, 2015-06-11 16:58

The U.S. Supreme Court is expected to decide by the end of this month whether Affordable Care Act subsidies are legal in Alaska and 33 other states that use the federal health insurance exchange. More than 18,000 people in Alaska could lose subsidies if the court decides in favor of the plaintiffs in the King v. Burwell case. The plaintiffs argue the ACA only allows for subsidies in states that set up their own exchange.

Alaska’s insurance director, Lori Wing-Heier is paying close attention to the issue as she waits for a decision:

“In the meantime we continue to work on our contingency plan, refine our contingency plan, exploring all options and what will be the most feasible for the state and we’ll be able to discuss it in more detail once the opinion is released.”

Wing-Heier says Governor Bill Walker is committed to ensuring that Alaskans who are receiving subsidies won’t lose them. The average subsidy in Alaska is more than $500 each month.

Without the subsidies, the Kaiser Family Foundation estimates the cost of the premiums would spike by 500 percent.

Categories: Alaska News

Orthodox Cathedral Desecrated During Vandalism Spree In Kodiak

Thu, 2015-06-11 14:40

A 21-year-old man is under arrest for allegedly vandalizing one of Kodiak’s most historic buildings, the Holy Resurrection Russian Orthodox Cathedral, and many of its contents.

In a press release from the Kodiak Police Department, Arkimedes Garcia was arrested around 8:00 Wednesday night as he was exiting the church.

Northeastern side of the Holy Resurrection Church, a Russian Orthodox church in Kodiak, a city in the Kodiak Island Borough of the U.S. state of Alaska. Built in 1945, the church was added to the National Register of Historic Places on 12 December 1977. Photo by NPS.

Thursday morning, Father Innocent Dresdow, the Dean of the Holy Resurrection Church, said many holy items were damaged.

“It’s clear from the pattern of destruction that this dear soul is deeply troubled and his anger and his rage appeared to be directed at, frankly God. And from the perspective of the Church, he knew exactly which things were holiest. And those were the things that were in absolute disarray.”

He said the most holy items have been removed from the church to an undisclosed location and are being re-blessed.

Father Innocent said Garcia broke several windows and made his way into the church’s Sanctuary behind the Nave where he not only did damaged items, but desecrated them as well.

“You can see in the hand crosses fi you look carefully – they’re bent upward. All of the crosses that he just damaged are bent upward in the same pattern, including St. Herman’s Monastic Cross, which is the most priceless damage that was done last night. The tabernacle is where the reserve sacraments, the Holy Mysteries, body, blood of Christ are kept. Well, that was on the floor, with the Holy Mysteries and all the holy items that were on the alter were on the floor on both sides. He bled on the holy table, he bled on the back wall, he bled in the church in different places, and on the alter particularly is a major desecration.” “So he injured himself?” “He injured himself, yes.”

Father Innocent said that even though the church sustained physical damage in the attack, services will go on as planned.

“Scheduled services for tonight, at 6 p.m., the Akathist to St. Herman, will be held as scheduled. We have a clean up crew coming in at 1 p.m. People are welcome to join us from the community. They don’t have to be Orthodox if they want to come and help. We’re essentially trying to go over the floor, chairs, everything to make sure all, the minutest glass shards are out of the floor and items. We have lots of children here and we want to make sure nobody gets hurt.”

According to the Kodiak Police Department press release, Garcia emerged from the church “partially unclothed,” but did not explain further. Police Chief Ronda Wallace was unavailable for comment. Garcia was booked on four felony counts of burglary and criminal mischief.

Categories: Alaska News

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